It is pretty much a mathematical certainty that when a conversation starts with the phrase “I’m not a racist but …” the next words out of the interlocutor’s mouth will be some odious statement of bigotry. In fact, the Urban Dictionary points to this curious phenomenon when it explains the phrase is “something an idiot says just before making a comment that proves the idiot is, in fact, a racist.”
So, when John Terry, the England Football team’s captain, pretty much tells the press that he is not a racist things do not look good. But this article is not about John Terry and his alleged racist comments that are currently the subject of investigation by the Metropolitan police. Or rather, it is not directly about Mr. Terry and his legal and moral woes. For the avoidance of doubt, I have no opinion on whether or not John Terry is a racist, still less as to whether he deserves to be prosecuted for this alleged act.
But the debate over whether John Terry should continue to be selected and captain the national team whilst these allegations are investigated has brought a plethora of “talking heads” offering us the viewers their expert opinion; foremost among them is Paul Ince the former England international and Manchester United stalwart. Oh, and did I mention he was black?
The reason I mention Ince’s colour is because, like Tony Fernandes whom the BBC have also quoted on this issue, they seem to be the only individuals quoted – the implicit argument seems to be if a person of colour says a comment is not racist then it is not racist. The trouble is, especially in regard to Paul Ince’s attributed quote, is that he is plain wrong. When asked about the affair Ince commented that “It’s no excuse to say allegedly what he might have said or what anybody says towards black, white, Chinese (people). But if you say things in the heat of the moment it doesn’t necessarily mean you are a racist.”
What Ince’s comment fails to convey is that racism does not need to be linked to any ill intent on the part of the offender. A racist can be well-meaning, charitable, and basically be a good person and still be a racist.
In the language of law the Commission for Racial Equality defined institutional racism by way of the following example: “”If racist consequences accrue to institutional laws, customs or practices, that institution is racist whether or not the individuals maintaining those practices have racial intentions.” To be put it in the context of the John Terry saga, if you single out an individual for adverse comment solely because of race then whether or not you subscribe to the odious politics of the British National Party and their ilk you are racist. Pretending it is not does nothing for race relations.
The fact is that if John Terry is found to have made inappropriate comments he should not automatically become persona non grata. If he takes ownership of his prejudice and seeks to change his future behaviour he will have served as an effective role model for the much more widespread “institutional racism” that affects the UK – pretending otherwise as Paul Ince appears to favour helps no-one.